Gross Indecency is perhaps less a work of fiction than the other two contemporary Wilde dramas, since it was culled almost entirely from court transcripts as well as from his letters and excerpts from The Picture of Dorian Gray; his essay "De Profundis" (written while in prison); and his letters to Douglas. In fact, you might call it theater's answer to the documentary film. With the exception of John Felix, who plays Wilde, all the actors play multiple parts. This splitting up of duties allows a parade of talking heads to cross the stage, from George Bernard Shaw and Queen Victoria to the slew of working-class male prostitutes who, dressed in their underwear, give evidence against Wilde in court.
Likewise portrayed are various London journalists declaring Wilde's court experience "the trial of the century," as well as the prosecutors, the defense attorney, Wilde's wife (yes, he was married, with two children), his mother, and the man who procured boys for him. Douglas and his father are played, respectively, by Gordon Brode and Steve Wise, both deft performers who handle fewer secondary roles but create memorable profiles for their primary characters. What also gives the play a documentary feel is the presence of narrators (also played by revolving cast members) who describe scenes as they occur.
While the play doesn't give us a new perspective on Wilde, the Caldwell production, directed by artistic director Michael Hall and designed by Tim Bennett and Thomas Salzman, is, quite simply, beautiful. From its design -- in which actors and abstract scenery alike are outfitted in a black-to-gray color scheme -- to its razor-sharp pacing, the show exults in its own artistic universe.
Unlike the play's dialogue, in which the juxtaposition of Wilde's writing and his court testimony never creates any friction, the staging uses conflicting moods to great effect. The contrast between the somber attitudes of the Old Bailey judges and lawyers and the near-obscene Beardsley prints that line the stage points up the palpable tension between Wilde and the society he lived in.
Foremost, John Felix's performance gives us a glimpse of Wilde as a living, breathing genius -- and a sympathetic one at that. A rotund middle-aged man who looks and moves a bit like the Cowardly Lion wearing a morning coat, Felix resembles the later photographs of Wilde, when he was no longer the long-haired boulevardier we often think of when we envision Wilde. He seems vulnerable and human.
The academic in the play's talk-show scene suggests that Wilde, a brilliant and confident wordsmith, succeeded only when he was able to "control the discourse" around him. Up against the legal colloquy in court, he was bound to fail. Felix's performance evokes this idea. His Oscar Wilde seems genuinely bewildered that his own wit cannot save him. Gross indecencies aside, Felix and the rest of the Caldwell performers and technicians give us a show we can be Wilde about.